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In my column this week, we looked at one small open mesh experiment, in which routers placed every few houses repeat a signal strong enough to pull a wireless cloud over the immediate neighborhood. It’s a lot more efficient than everyone buying their own Comcast subscription, and especially promising for poorer communities—where, as a report out from the Investigative Reporting Workshop shows, broadband access is actually more expensive.
As Hugh Youngblood explained how the Bloomingdale Bridge worked, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why don’t we put a cloud over the entire city, or at least the densest residential and commercial areas? The fact that I can’t get free wireless on a streetcorner in downtown Washington D.C. is absurd.
Such networks aren’t unheard of. Ad-hoc, user-owned versions have sprung up in Germany, Austria, and Athens, Greece. In Lawrence, Kansas, a non-profit group charges vastly reduced rates to subscribers, and provides free service in low-income areas. Urbana, Illinois has free wireless in commercial areas.
But community wireless projects in America haven’t taken off to the same extent as they have in Europe, in part because of pushback from the big carriers. (Although, as Youngblood pointed out, resistance is sort of silly: Expanding wireless to underserved areas is a good thing for cable companies, since some new users will inevitably want the stronger connection they can only get from “fiber to the curb.” In that way, free or low-cost wireless is like a gateway drug. “We get people addicted,” as he puts it. “If you want the strong stuff, go get it from the man.”)
In D.C. in particular, the grassroots digital justice movement isn’t even as active as it has been in places like Detroit—but it wasn’t always that way. Shireen Mitchell, now an independent social media and technology consultant, remembers that there was a thriving group of nonprofits and organizers in the early 2000s who established community technology centers for training teens, and had started working on a wireless project in the U Street area. But in the mid-Bush administration, federal funding for those projects dried up.
“It had a huge community. A huge community. And once that funding started getting pulled, a lot of the institutional knowledge left,” Mitchell says. “People gotta get paid.”
So now, there’s a Digital Divide facebook group. There’s One Computer One Child, which works on distributing refurbished computers, as well as training. And there’s OCTO, which doesn’t have any money to support these kinds of things. So a lapse in funding might have taken the air out a nascent movement, and D.C. is now behind where it otherwise might have been because of it.